A Hungarian Fairy Tale harken backs to those halcyon days of foreign film intellectualism, the 1960's, when no self-respecting intellectual would be found without an opinion on the latest Godard film, or a preference for either Fellini or Bergman. Those were the days of really foreign foreign films, films which challenged the intellect and amazed the eye. They also had a certain heaviness, sometimes to the point of indigestibility. At their best, they were bold and challenging. At their worst, they were dull and pretentious.

A Hungarian Fairy Tale is reminiscent of that sort of film, but unfortunately, not in the best sense. It's obscure, but not very deep. It has the requisite level of difficulty and heaviness for a 60's European film, but it isn't very satisfying. Director Gyula Gazdag has taken an interesting premise, started out on a cinematic journey, but then taken a dive into shallow, but murky, intellectual waters. The resulting film has some fine moments, but fails to move or provoke.

The premise of the film derives from a Gilbert and Sullivan-style Hungarian law, still on the books. All Hungarian children must have an official father. If no father is known, one is created. Thus, some illegitimate children have fictional fathers, with fictional addresses and occupations, on their birth certificates. Gazdag looks at such a child, and examines what might happen if he suddenly lost his mother before discovering that his supposed father doesn't exist at all.

In some senses, this is a terrific premise. I can easily imagine a fine comedy, or suspense film, taking its starting point from here. Taking the film in one of these directions would not lead to much depth, but could be fun. On the other hand, this premise could equally well serve as a jumping off point into a serious examination of the nature of reality, or into totalitarian suppression of truth, or into the roles of fathers and sons. Or one can imagine a realistic social drama of a child on his own in a difficult society.

At first, this latter appears to be what Gazdag is up to. But the continued intercutting of the boy's plight with the activities of the clerk who originally invented his father indicates that something more is going on. This clerk suddenly decides to destroy all of the records of children who he has supplied fictitious fathers to. We see a bit of the boy's story, told in a fairly realistic manner, then some rather odd behavior from the clerk, then we're back to the boy. Eventually the stories come together, and the movie comes apart. Gazdag suddenly breaks into surrealistic symbolism and confusing fantasy.

Perhaps all of this symbolism and oddity makes sense to Hungarians. It made little sense to me. Its only value seemed to be unpredicatability. Surprises and twists are all well and good, but they work best when, in retrospect, they make sense. Those in A Hungarian Fairy Tale do not. They seem arbitrary, suggesting a writer who didn't know how to end his script.

In many ways, A Hungarian Fairy Tale goes downhill. The opening sequence features excellent photography, both technically and artistically. The last shot is a standardly composed, poorly executed special effect. The storytelling is initially unusually elliptical, yet logical. By the end, the method has become quite conventional, while at the same time displaying no logic worth mentioning. The use of music from Mozart's The Magic Flute early in the film is much more effective than its overuse at the end of the film.

One element that remains strong throughout the film is the performance by David Vermes as the boy. Vermes had never been in a film before, but he delivers a strong performance. As other writers have mentioned, he looks remarkably like a young, blond Marlon Brando, and he has some of the intensity of Brando, as well. The other performances in the film are capable.

One point in the film's favor, for me at least, is that it is in black and white. Black and white photography can achieve some remarkable effects, and has a mood all its own, that even the best color photography cannot duplicate. A Hungarian Fairy Tale has very fine photography, especially in the early part of the film. Cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi composes and lights shots beautifully. Unfortunately, by the end of the film his creativity was either exhausted or suppressed.

Gazdag has said, as have many other directors, that his films should speak for themselves. A Hungarian Fairy Tale mumbles, or perhaps speaks only Hungarian. In its more coherent moments, it has great beauty. Its decline into incomprehensibility is thus all the more regrettable.

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